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U.S. and Europe: Time for a Divorce?

Has the time come for Europe to take a new and independent stance?

February 20, 2002

Has the time come for Europe to take a new and independent stance?

The list of pressing questions which Europeans have to ask themselves currently just keeps growing: Why send European peacekeeping troops to Afghanistan — if U.S. over-aggression risks guerrilla warfare against those troops? Or why side with the United States — if U.S. military strikes risk creating more Afghanistans elsewhere, where still more peacekeepers may be needed?

And what European interest is served by continuing to antagonize Islamic nations by standing with Washington’s one-sided support for Israel? Such questions are being raised by European leaders — and openly.

In fact, prominent European policymakers are testing the waters of foreign policy independence. France’s foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, branded President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech — which labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil” — as “simplistic.”

The outspoken Mr. Vedrine observed that Mr. Bush’s speech “reduced all problems in the world to the struggle against terrorism.” And he is certainly not the only leader to speak so candidly.

In a long interview in Die Welt, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer was far more detailed. “The international coalition against terror is not the foundation to carry out just anything against anybody — and particularly not on one’s own,” said Fischer. He added: “All the European foreign ministers see it that way.”

Fine, I say. So Europe should now get on with it and develop its own separate — if not completely equal — foreign policy.

Here is why such independence on Europe’s part is totally feasible.

First, there are no terrorist or violent states aimed directly at Europe or its citizens. Nor is there any shooting near European borders. The last risk of violence and outright tyranny within or in close proximity to Europe was squelched by NATO’s bombing — and threatened land invasion — of Serbia in 1999.

Yes, Europe did need American air power and land forces to make that effort credible. But Serbia is now a democracy. Russian military power has imploded — and it can threaten only Chechnya. So Europe no longer needs U.S. help for its own defenses at all.

Second, Europe’s military weakness — once divorced from the United States — can be a tremendous asset to an independent foreign policy. In essence, it removes Europe from any line of fire.

Not one European nation can muster even one fully equipped combat-ready division of soldiers. Nor, if it had such a force, could any of its nations transport and permanently maintain such a combat unit in any mildly hostile environment outside Europe. In short, Europe alone is a serious threat to no one. Insurgents, rebels, terrorists or even rogue states have no motive for operating against Europe — as long as Europe stays militarily “soft.”

Third, if Europe refuses to supply more peacekeepers for Afghanistan, it can effectively curb U.S. ambitions — without actively opposing the Americans. Europe and Asia may soon have 10,000 troops in Afghanistan as peacekeepers. In theory, that frees up that many U.S. soldiers for duty — and possible attacks — elsewhere.

In contrast, if Europe were to withhold additional peacekeepers, that would serve a powerful purpose. It would remove the last remaining motive for terrorists to attack Europe — or its civilians.

Fourth, in divorcing itself from the United States, Europe would project a clear, pro-peace, pro-humanitarian image. Not only would this image embody its citizens’ best hopes and wishes, but it would also serve as a moral reference point — against which U.S. hegemony would be compared unfavorably by world opinion. Such a “strategy of shame” might help constrain further vigorous displays of U.S. unilateralism.

Fifth, there is no direct risk to Europe in any of these actions. Even as Europe — by its non-participation — reduced the power and scope of U.S. military actions, it would continue to enjoy whatever protections such actions did produce.

Clearly, European leaders think that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rogue states like Iraq, Iran or North Korea are a true menace — if not to Europe, certainly to the peace of the world.

So while deploring U.S. attacks on these as excessive and while refusing to help, Europe could still benefit if the United States managed to damage or destroy the weapons — or even the regimes.

Sixth, there would be commercial benefits as well. A more sympathetic policy towards the Islamic world would doubtless open more markets over time for Europe in the oil rich Middle East.

The one great risk to Europe in pursuing a new and independent foreign policy is the destruction of NATO.

Yes, NATO could survive the first or second refusal by Europe to assist U.S. military actions abroad. But a systematic refusal to play ball clearly would lead to American withdrawal from NATO.

No U.S. President could maintain — or want to maintain — membership in an alliance that is useful only to the European side.

From the U.S. perspective, over 3,000 people died in a sneak attack on American soil — and the overwhelming majority of them were civilians. Then, the emotional dust settles, and Europe’s reaction is to wring its hands that the U.S. has gone too far in prosecuting the war on terror.

U.S. citizens themselves would feel justifiable outrage that a group of nations which desperately needed their help — first against the Nazis, and then against the Soviets — refused to offer aid when Americans were attacked.

Defended by the U.S. for the better part of six decades, one can argue that Europe has become cowardly. But as far as Europe’s own perceived self-interest goes, the story looks quite different.

If Europe’s leaders mean a fraction of what they are saying, they will pull their peacekeepers out of Afghanistan — or certainly not send new ones. They will tell the United States and the world that Europe’s friendship and alliance with the U.S, though strong, has definite boundaries. If the United States wants to extend the war on terrorism further, it is henceforth on its own.

For the foreseeable future, Europe would win big. Someplace down the line, the nations of Europe might be forced to actually raise larger and better equipped armed forces. Real threats could emerge. But right now, there are none in sight — accept those associated with helping the United States.

February 20, 2002